Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Is there redeeming value in online ranting?

I don't visit the online reader forums of my local paper, The Patriot-News, that often. But when I do, I'm always shocked, sometimes appalled, and occasionally depressed by the venom and anger that reside there.

Recently, a flood of comments accompanied the news that Anita Smith, the CEO of local insurer Capital Blue Cross for the last several years, and the star of its TV ad campaign, had resigned. A brief sample of the comments that readers posted (you can read the entire list at the link above):

I've always heard she's a complete and total witch who would step on her own mother's back to get what she wants!

I'm not sure how she got the job in the first place with a Bachelor's Degree from St. Joe's??????????
I really couldn't believe it when I discovered that fact! UNREAL

Thank goodness we won't be subjected to those awful commercials of hers anymore!! I had to mute the TV and look away every time I saw her smug mug dancing around on my TV. Seeing them in HD made it even more difficult to suppress the gag reflex.

It's about time she got canned. She should have never had the job in the first place.... and sure they could have picked a worse picture of her. There are some out there..really bad ones.. from before she spent lots of premium payers dollars getting herself a complete makeover.

Now, if only Mary Sammons would follow suit, maybe Rite Aid could get out of the toilet.

It's difficult to find redeeming value in this name-calling, envy, schadenfreude and misogyny. My first reaction was to ask, "Can't we be a bit more civilized? Can't the editors do something to elevate the dialogue?" But as I've thought more about it, I think we should leave the forums just as they are.

While forum entries are frequently presumptions, value judgments or downright fabrications, even the most objectionable ones are essentially true.

What I mean is this: they are true to the teller. The writer of a forum item believes what he or she is writing, believes it enough to sit down at a computer and type it and hit "enter." Given that, of what use is censorship? Removing the item or preventing its telling in the first place will not change the opinion of those who would write about it in the first place. There are themes, moreover, within the comments, that are important to appreciate: that there is great anger at people who lead our companies, that many don't accept women in executive roles, that people are hurting in general.

In other words, the forum entries show us the world as it is, as opposed to the world as we would wish it to be.

And, even among the vitriol and hate displayed in the forum, legitimate questions were raised, such as: how much did Capital Blue Cross spend in advertising, and how much should a non-profit insurer spend for image advertising? Those questions spawned off some interesting reporting in the Patriot-News.

These posts must have been painful for Anita Smith and her family and friends, if they paid any attention to them (hopefully they ignored them). But that's the price of prominence: you will be treated unfairly by people who don't know you at all. When people feel threatened, uncertain, or at risk (like now), they will lash out at those who caused (or who've sidestepped) their difficulties.

And I'd rather know what people are really thinking than be able to pretend that we as a society have grown past those thoughts, even if they're unpleasant.

(Disclosure: this blog is available as part of the Patriot-News' pennlive.com)

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